PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday faced a new wave of anger over his plan to reform pensions, with nationwide strikes and protests causing widespread disruption in transport, schools and other public services.
Union-led protesters came out for mass demonstrations for the second time in less than two weeks, hoping to force Macron to drop his plan to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64, a flagship reform of his second mandate in power.
A police source said the authorities were bracing for up to 1.2 million people to take to the streets across the country.
If confirmed, the number could exceed the 1.1 million who came out on January 19 against the proposed shake-up—already the largest protests since the last major round of pension reform in 2010. “We hope to be at least that many again,” the boss of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told media Tuesday, adding there would be 250 protest marches.
But Macron has shown no sign of stepping back, insisting on Monday that the reform is “essential” to “save our system” of pensions distribution.
Some 11,000 police were mobilised, with 4,000 deployed in Paris where several hundred extremist troublemakers were expected, according to the interior ministry.
The first marches kicked off at 10:00 am (0900 GMT), with several prominent opposition politicians taking part. “Mr Macron is certain to lose,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, a figurehead for the far left and former presidential candidate, as he marched in the southern port city of Marseille.
Millions had to find alternative means of transport Tuesday, work from home or take time off to look after their school-age children, with workers in transport and education sectors among those staging walkouts.
“This is about more than pensions, it is about what kind of society we want,” 59-year-old university professor Martine Beugnet told AFP. Paris metro and suburban rail services were severely restricted, as was intercity travel.
In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, arrived at the train station in the small hours of Tuesday, hoping to catch a train to Paris after the one he was booked on around 5:00 am (0400 GMT) never left.
“Unfortunately it was cancelled,” he said.
Air travel appeared to be less affected, and there were only minor disruptions on international train services including the Eurostar. Around half of all nursery and primary school teachers were on strike.
France’s oil industry was mostly paralysed, with the CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 percent of workers on strike.
High school and university students also joined the movement, with a few dozen students at the prestigious Sciences-Po university occupying its main building overnight. “It’s important to get young people involved in the pensions debate,” Jean-Baptiste Bonnet, a student there, told AFP.
“Obviously this is young people’s business,” said Colin Champion, a student leader at the Lycee Voltaire in Paris, one of several schools blockaded by pupils in the capital.
Even a prison, in the southwestern city of Nimes, was blocked by staff protesting, a union source said.
Sixty-one percent of French people support the protest movement, a poll by the OpinionWay survey group showed on Monday—a rise of three percentage points from January 12.
“The more French people find out about the reform, the less they support it,” said Frederic Dabi, a prominent pollster at the Ifop institute. “This is not good at all for the government,” he told AFP.
The most controversial part of the overhaul is hiking the minimum retirement age. But the changes are also to increase the number of years people have to make contributions before they can receive a full pension.
France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies. The government has said the changes are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years. But opponents point out that the system is not in trouble, insisting pension spending is not out of control.
The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has declared raising the age of retirement “non-negotiable”. Parliament committees started examining the bill on Monday. Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation.
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